Sustainability in America’s Cities

(Book Review: Slavin, Matthew I. 2011. Sustainability in America’s Cities: Creating the Green Metropolis. Washington DC: Island Press.)

This book looks at the rise of urban sustainability in America, using specific case studies. Matthew Slavin first defines different aspects of the terms sustainability. He then goes about explaining the rise of sustainability with many examples from cities like Portland, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Washington DC, San Francisco, Honolulu, Philadelphia, and New York City across America.

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Before Slavin could start describing different sustainable efforts, he first had to define sustainability. He explains that sustainability is “the capacity of natural systems to endure, to remain diverse and productive over time.” To be more specific, he sets the term sustainable cities as “those that design and manage their form of governance, economies, built environment, transportation systems, energy and water use, food production, and waste in a manner that imposes the smallest possible footprint upon the environment.” I think it is important to also note that sustainable efforts involve work from top-down as well as bottom-up agencies.

There are three reasons why cities are now working to apply more sustainable practices to their everyday actions. The first reason is because an unavoidable conflict between development and local environment carrying capacity has been growing due to urbanization. Second, one of municipal government’s primary functions is economic development. Lastly, in this century, the predominant imperative confronting the world is global warming. While 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, it is obviously important that these areas work toward a more sustainable future. Of the many case studies Slavin provides, I will focus here on two: Portland, Oregon and New York, New York.

Sustainable efforts in Portland, Oregon include strategic climate action planning. Portland is the only large American city to have reduced both its per capita and overall carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. It was also the first city to adopt a municipal climate action plan, which works to mitigate carbon dioxide generation as well as actions to adapt to the warming planet. Some sustainable efforts include mandating refundable deposits on recyclables such as glass, plastic, and aluminum cans. Highway funding was also used to fund bicycle projects, displaying concern for emissions from vehicles. Portland’s urban growth boundary’s concentration of development as well as a 30 percent increase of ridership on the public light rail system contributed to a three percent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in 1997 from 1990 levels. A seven percent per capita decline followed in 2000.  Other efforts toward sustainability included constructing LEED buildings, installing wind turbines atop buildings, and providing incentives for electricity efficiency. Through their various climate plans and dedication, Portland will continue to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

In trying to provide food for a great amount of people in New York City, it is often hard to do so sustainably. Experiencing inefficiencies, environmental problems, and inequity of distribution, recent efforts have been made to change these. Such urban food production practices include community gardens, rooftop farms, and small-scale urban farms. New York also issued nutrition standards to be followed by places serving snacks and meals such as schools, senior centers, homeless shelters, child cares, hospitals, and parks. Lastly, zoning changes occurred to allow for supermarkets in lower socioeconomic areas. This allows people there better access to fresh, healthy food. These efforts, as well as many more have provided New York City with a more sustainable and healthy food supply.

This book was very interesting. As I am more interested in urban rather than rural areas, I wanted to read about efforts to create more sustainable cities. The different case studies all involved different types of actions and areas of sustainable development, which together proved that cities can become sustainable in many different ways. If all of these were attempted in the same city, that would be the most sustainable city ever.

About Gary Chandler

Gary R. Chandler is a sustainability author and strategist. Follow him on Twitter @Gary_Chandler
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